By Yousaf Rafiq
Only when Kabul realises that the situation in Afghanistan will finally be ‘contained’ when all regional countries play together will there be some manner of coherence in his strategy.
How ironic that after rubbishing Pakistan’s so called ‘good Taliban’ policy for a good decade the Afghan government pulls a similar stunt of its own. Perhaps Ghani didn’t quite factor in the reaction from the people of Afghanistan, not the least its capital, when he decided to pardon the ‘butcher of Kabul’, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and maybe give him a position in government. Already the other part of the coalition government has expressed shock and horror, and most Afghans — of the few allowed to express their opinions — have voiced very serious concerns.
The move is self-defeating for two main reasons. One, it undoes of much that has been achieved in parliament since the Karzai days. Back then, when the Americans helped stitch together to loose government, a group of older and a group of younger people dominated the House. The older were in favour of reconciliation with all insurgent groups, especially the Taliban; even incorporating them in the government in Kabul. But the younger lot, which had come to the fore after the decades of the Soviet war and the civil war, would have nothing of the old ways. They have since been dead against peace or reconciliation with the insurgents. And never, in any case, any position in government.
And two, it achieves nothing. Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami is a spent force. Sure, they have some presence in two or three provinces, but it poses no challenge to the government or the Taliban. A deal with the Taliban, despite the expected outcry from the progressive bloc, would still be understandable in terms of cost-benefit. They have been gaining momentum for years now. And the annual Spring Offensive now traditionally sees them build a strong start and then snowball. Ending the fight before they gain more ground — even though they will never retake Kabul — could be forgiven, even if it means some of the bad guys would be very prominent in Kabul.
Those expecting Hekmatyar to quickly make a few phone calls and help break the ice between the government and some of his old friends might have to eat their words sooner rather than later too. For one thing, most of those friends just do not talk to him any longer. After the betrayals and counter-betrayals and mass murders of the civil war of the ‘90s — when good old Gulbuddin was Pakistan’s blue eyed, played a central role and was even made prime minister — nobody trusted anybody anymore. For another, a lot of those old friends reconciled their way to Kabul ahead of him; in the Karzai days. And they are already persona non grata again, and there’s precious little Hekmatyar will be able to do about it.
So why go through all the trouble of easing back a notorious bad guy; especially since it comes at the risk of further fracturing the coalition government and alienating almost all segments of society? And why were the UN and US so eager to play along? Why is Hekmatyar suddenly no longer a ‘global terrorist’? Since it achieves little that can be measured, could it be that the whole exercise was undertaken just for optics? If so, what message is Ghani exactly trying to give, especially since it fails to resonate with half the government and almost all of the people?
Pakistan, of course, is the last consideration for the Afghan government as it goes about dealing with its unending insurgency. And the Americans have so far been pretty quiet since the Trump administration took office. So, most likely, their previous working arrangement is still in play. But surely Kabul’s move has failed to incorporate recent developments closer to the region. The Chinese and Russians have finally stepped into the fray. Since the Afghan conflict affects them far more directly than the Americans and its NATO allies, it’s about time that they take a more direct part in wrapping it up.
Maybe Kabul is just unhappy that they are choosing to work with Pakistan. If that is true, Ghani will also spend the rest of his days trying to end the war unsuccessfully. And, much more seriously, the Taliban will continue gaining ground slowly but surely. Even if Washington suddenly makes radical decisions, there’s little likelihood of it really ending the war no matter what it does. It’s already tried filling the country with troops, and throwing a ton of money at it, but the problem has only grown.
Only when Kabul realises that the situation in Afghanistan will finally be ‘contained’ when all regional countries play together will there be some manner of coherence in his strategy. And that is also when there will be some semblance of order in Afghanistan’s hybrid government. But that also means realising that, for good or for bad, the road to Afghanistan runs through Pakistan; at least in this matter it does. And since there is a perfect double coincidence of wants between Kabul and Islamabad — both want what the other can deliver; action against their respective Taliban groups — the time to work together could not be more ripe.
For the time being, though, it’s unlikely that good sense will find its way to Kabul’s presidential palace anytime soon. Ghani’s unlikely to think of another route so soon after his Hekmatyar gambit. He’ll definitely wait to see how it plays out. Hopefully he would have read the latest UN report about his country that just came out.
It stressed upon all warring factions, once again, to immediately halt all forms of hostilities. It went on to remind them, as usual, of the horrendous cost of the war on ordinary, poor, deprived Afghans, who number well in the hundreds of thousands. If they had a voice they would have told the president of the times when foreign influence, arms and money propelled Hekmatyar to prime minister, and how he chose to shell Kabul instead. They would surely have told them what they thought of his opinion to welcome him back.